Rudi Verspoor, a PhD student at the University of Liverpool shared his volunteering experiences, which convinced him to pursue a PhD, at the Life Sciences Careers conference in Liverpool. Further conferences will be taking place in London and Staffordshire later this month.
You might wonder what makes some students pursue a PhD and not others. At university, I studied a selfish genetic trait that makes males produce only female offspring. My university helped me to continue this study at PhD. But experiences outside my main university course also played a big role in my decision. Collecting wild salmon samples in Northern British Columbia and organising an expedition with class mates to study entomophagy (the eating of insects) in northern Benin, helped me decide that I wanted to pursue a PhD. So how do you find the right experiences, to help you decide on your future?
In the first year of university I send out many ‘request for work’ emails and received very few responses. That’s when it clicked. I realised I wasn’t getting anywhere and that my time and commitment would be an asset to a research group looking for an extra pair of hands. My first position was collecting aquatic invertebrates in southern Scotland and another was in Ecuador studying social spiders that live together in thousand-strong colonies! Getting these positions still required a focussed and engaged introductory email accompanied with a spotless CV – so I encourage you to be proactive!
As an undergraduate student you also have pretty long summers. I spent mine looking for work. Though of course, not everyone can afford to volunteer for free. However, many of the labs that I really wanted to work with, were able to fund me. But if they can’t, then looking for external funding is the key. I searched everything from society funds (many of which are specific to undergraduate members) to internal university or national funding. The earlier you look for these opportunities the easier it is to develop a project with an organisation and put together a strong application. It took me until my third year to realise that societies really crave undergraduate involvement and many universities and organisations have unique sources of money and expertise to help their students pursue supervised and bespoke projects to supplement their regular studies.
Was all this effort worth the hassle? For me, the answer would be a definitive yes. I was lucky be able to travel and learn a plethora of field and laboratory skills. Working with different groups has also given me great contacts across a range of disciplines. If I had chosen to leave academia after university, however, I think my work and experiences still would have helped me to go in another direction. Learning to think independently, plan your own projects and take responsibility are just a few of the skills you’ll develop, that any employer will be interested in.
Life Sciences Careers Conferences (LSCCs) showcase the breadth of careers available after studying the life sciences. Bookings are now open for conferences in London (22nd Oct) and Staffordshire (29th Oct).